What Do Showrunners Look for When Hiring Writers?
What Do Showrunners Look for When Hiring Writers?
I recently attended a panel discussion on writer’s rooms and wanted to share some of the insights offered by the panelists who are two prominent showrunners from network and cable: A streaming network executive, and a production company executive.
The questions they answered were:
- What do showrunners look for when they hire writers?
- What is the process for hiring?
- How are rooms different in network vs. cable and streaming?
- What if you create a show and the studio wants to bring in an experienced showrunner to work with you?
- What do producers and executives wish writers understood better?
- How can you succeed in an interview with a showrunner for a staff writer position? Here are some tips from the pros.
Showrunners and executives agree that the number one thing they look for in writers is people with different perspectives.
New, authentic voices are in high demand both in rooms and as show creators. On network shows , the writer’s rooms are relatively big with several lower-level positions, so there’s room for educating up-and-coming writers. In cable and streaming, the new trend is toward the “mini-room;” a concept where 2 - 3 writers are assembled to break out a season in anticipation of a straight-to-series pickup instead of making a pilot. This type of arrangement works well to create an intimate space where the show creator can prove that there is something in the concept that will work in the long run. Executives prefer this arrangement over pilots, even though among writers it isn’t universally loved, since it results in short-term employment and lower overall pay.
There are also limited opportunities to “break in” unless you have a relationship with the show creator and a clear attachment to the concept. In both cases, however, showrunners are looking for writers who come at the material from a fresh point-of-view, who bring something new to the table.
Of course, it still takes connections to break in. Executives and producers have anticipatory meetings with writers in the weeks or months leading up to assembling a room. In these general meetings they can get a sense of where a writer might best fit in. As they read new talent, they are, of course, also looking for writers with whom they might develop new concepts. Development deals often come out of these meetings. Writers also ask friends and colleagues for recommendations, so every job as a writer offers new opportunities to make connections that open doors to future work. Gather references not only from higher-ups, but also from peers.
One of the biggest pipelines for writers into a room is agents and managers. Many showrunners take recommendations first from their own agents. Some take calls from other agents and managers as well, while others prefer that reps pitch their clients to producers instead. Both showrunners and producers tend to trust agents and managers who submit only clients who are really right for the project, rather than a long list of candidates. So don’t ask or expect your rep to pitch you for everything – it’s actually counter-productive. If you’re frequently pitched for assignments for which you are not suited, your rep will eventually not be taken seriously.
Through all these pipelines, piles of scripts accumulate on showrunners’ desks as they are staffing. They can’t possibly read every sample all the way through. The first few scenes, perhaps 10 pages, tell them pretty much everything they need to know. Once in a while they can’t stop reading and finish a script – a really, really good sign! Usually the sentiment is, “I wish I had written this!”
Showrunners say they barely look at cover pages because they don’t decipher anything like gender or ethnicity. It’s all about the writing, so make that first act really sing!
Another way into rooms is by being a writer’s or showrunner’s assistant. Showrunners value a great assistant highly (especially first-time showrunners), and are generally open to giving assistants who prove themselves a shot at a script and then at being promoted to staff. Even if you don’t get promoted on the first show you work on, the showrunner is likely to consider you for their next project.
Since there is a big push for more inclusive writers’ rooms now that include female writers and people of color, diversity programs, like those run by Disney and Warner Bros, are another great way into the business. When graduates of these programs are staffed, showrunners effectively get a “free” writer since the studio covers the writer’s salary. But then that writer has to actually do good work in order to succeed, just like everyone else.
In a room with a first-time showrunner, there is a greater need for seasoned, upper-level writers, each of who bring something to the project. Producers and executives want to surround promising new talent with a support network. Showrunners coming from successful feature careers (another common avenue for breaking into TV), have to get used to working with other writers collaboratively vs. working alone and feeling more competitive with other writers who might be brought in to replace them.
When the show creator has never run a show before, producers want to bring in an experienced showrunner to work with them. Of course, they want to make sure the creator is comfortable with the match! They describe it as a bit like dating. If you are in this position as a show creator, it’s important that you make it clear to your producers that you understand the need for someone with experience to mentor you. Open up and have a frank discussion about what you feel you are good at, and where you feel you need help.
Also, make it clear if you are interested in growing into the role in subsequent seasons vs. more of an interest in going on to develop other projects and letting them go once they are green-lit. You have to understand that your showrunner has come in with the commitment to spend all of his or her time and energy to help make your show better, not to steal it. As you work with your producers, the studio, and the network, there has to be a middle ground between you trusting them with your vision and them wanting to sell the show. As long as everyone is on the same page about what the show really is, things should run smoothly.
When showrunners interview writers, they look at several factors. Some of the process is different between network and cable/streaming, but much is the same. In network TV, there is a focus on hiring writers who are both good in a room and can deliver a strong draft. The timeline for scripts is so tight that everyone has to contribute in both ways. In cable and streaming, the time frame is somewhat greater, so there is more of a focus on writers who have a strong vision and can help break the season and refine it in a small room. They don’t necessarily have to deliver a finished draft, but they do need to contribute valuable ideas. The showrunner will be writing or rewriting the scripts anyway.
Many other factors apply to all types of shows. Showrunners look for someone who brings a different world-view, set of experiences, background, expertise, etc. to the room from their own. They don’t want a carbon copy of themselves – they already know what they do well and need people who can bring something more to the table. The showrunner has to have a vision and give direction to the writers so they can give back what is needed for the show. So they need to know what each writer can bring to the process. Network showrunners, who deal with brutally fast-paced production schedules, are particularly interested in writers who are flexible and might have set experience or could be put in an editing room. They wonder what producing skills you might bring or what you could be good at if given the chance.
So how do you prep for a meeting with a showrunner? Obviously you will have read the pilot and/or pitch. Come in with thoughtful ideas about show. Be constructive about what’s gone into the pilot. Be ready to speak articulately, dissecting what you’ve read. In a bad meeting, the showrunner feels like they need to re-pitch or explain the show to you. They are looking for someone who “got” the show, but could make a contribution in the room to make it better.
Then there is the big question of,“Do I want to spend 16 hours a day with this person?” Writer’s rooms are like a family. Showrunners have to consider whether you will fit in and get along with others. They look for writers who are collaborative more than competitive, who won’t fight with others, and whose interest is not in simply hearing themselves talk. So be prepared to have a real conversation.
Personal experience relevant to the topic of the show is, of course, a big plus. Some showrunners also like to hire consultants who are experts in the subject of the show, and that can certainly be a way into writing for TV. But consultants also need to be creative. Good consultants don’t simply veto story ideas, they find a way to get the story from point A to point B within the constraints of realism. They are not bound by the tried-and-true patterns of storytelling and have a different way of solving story problems.
I hope these insights prompt you to look at your own potential to be on the staff of a show and help in you to succeed in getting there. You saw above that a great script is the way to be considered by an executive or showrunner for a staffing job. Get professional help with your script through Stage 32. I am happy to offer help script coverage as well.
Anna Henry is a graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and
began her career as a development executive at Nickelodeon where
she worked on the development and production of animated television
series, pilots, and features, including the cult hit “Invader Zim.”
Anna crossed over to prime-time television working at CBS and ABC in
drama development and programming, and freelanced as a creative
consultant for a number of production companies. She is currently a
Creative Consultant at Andrea Simon Entertainment, a boutique literary
management and production company representing writers and directors,
where she previously the Director of Development. Anna offers script and
pitch consulting services at annahenryconsulting.com.
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About the Author
Anna Henry began her 20-year career as a development executive at Nickelodeon, working on the development and production of animated television series, pilots and features, including the cult hit “Invader Zim.” She crossed over to prime-time television working at CBS and ABC in drama development and...